Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Greta Christina loses my respect

I like Greta Christina. I found her popular angry atheist post [link fixed] and I've been reading her ever since. A lot of her stuff is very good, and there's no doubt she's an excellent writer. But the last few days her idiotic opinions have been finally succeeded in pushing me away, in destroying any respect I might have for her intellectual honesty and character.

First, she can't be bothered to put in a couple of words and turn a specious generalization into specifically targeted advice. When I took the San Francisco Sex Information training, lo, these many years ago, the first words out of my instructor's mouth were, "'Norm' is the name of a guy from Brooklyn." Outside of adult informed consent, there are no justifiable generalizations about sex: it's too complex a phenomenon with too many variables. Expressing any kind of generalization, however well-intentioned, establishes a norm and marginalizes those who fall outside that norm. Not a particularly gigantic issue, but it establishes a pattern that Christina is prone to the logical fallacy of hasty generalization from her own personal experience.

Second, she irritatingly uses "faith" to denote both skeptical and religious thought processes. I charitably presumed this usage was merely lazy, but today I see it was intentional.

Today she goes off the rails [link fixed].
It is entirely possible to be an overall sane, rational, functional person, and nevertheless have one particular area of irrational belief. Or even more than one.

In fact, it's not just possible. It's damn near universal. To atheists, as well as to believers.

We've all held irrational beliefs, and held on to them irrationally for longer than we should have.
This is simply false. Christina enumerates a long list of irrational beliefs (or beliefs she considers irrational) and simply presumes that because the list is so long, the probability that someone will hold at least one of those beliefs is very high, indeed almost certain (from which she concludes that irrationality is "damn near universal"). The problem is that the beliefs she lists are not independent: The truly irrational beliefs (the rest are simply common mistakes) derive from a core of attachment to irrational, unrealistic thinking. Eliminate that core and all of the beliefs are simply ludicrous; lacking that core of irrationality, I wouldn't hold any of them.

She asserts
Do any of these [irrational ideas] sound familiar? From your life, or from the lives of anyone you know? If not, I'm sure you can come up with some of your own, from your past, or maybe even from your present.
No, I can't, regardless of your surety. Sorry, I'm not a hyper-self-critical neurotic woo-woo refugee.

I'm really fucking tired of implicitly or explicitly being labeled as a freak, a soulless, unspiritual computerized automaton, a emotionless Spock, simply because I do indeed rationally consider all my beliefs. And there are a lot of people like me who are sensible, rational people, who do apply rational thought to all their beliefs. Greta Christina might find it difficult, but for some of us it's just routine.

Believing some proposition without certainty is not irrational; indeed being actually mistaken is not evidence of irrationality. A rational person has to make actual decisions about what to do and what to believe based on information that is not just finite, but usually extremely limited. It is not irrational, for example, to believe "that you can argue people out of their religious beliefs, if you just make your arguments good enough." It's almost always (but not always) mistaken, but not irrational per se. It would be irrational to believe you can argue religious people out of their beliefs after you have been proven wrong for the zillionth time. It's not even irrational per se to believe the Earth is fixed and unmoving: it definitely feels fixed and unmoving. The belief becomes irrational only when it's held after apprehending the evidence to the contrary, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

It's not irrational to feel emotions, to have opinions and preferences. It's not irrational to do something just because you want to do it. It's not irrational to make moral judgments on the basis of emotions, opinions and preferences. It's not even necessarily irrational (although I argue it's mistaken) to believe that there are good objective reasons for one's moral judgments.

Christina is advocating appeasement.
Again, while secular faith has instances of irrationality -- many of them, even -- it isn't irrational by its very nature. I think religious faith is.

But --

and this is very important --

I don't think religious believers are.

Not all of them, at any rate. Not by definition.

Here's the thing I think atheists need to remember. It is entirely possible to be an overall sane, rational, functional person, and nevertheless have one particular area of irrational belief. Or even more than one.
There's a prima facie contradiction here: Religious believers are not irrational "by nature" because everyone (except the insignificant, marginalized, freakish Spocks such as myself) has irrational beliefs. The contradiction is obvious: By this argument, it's not that the religious aren't irrational, it's that everyone is irrational.

This argument is frankly stupid. We can draw a distinction: "[S]ecular faith... isn't irrational by its very nature. I think religious faith is," but we can't draw a distinction: "[R]eligious believers [just] hold one irrational belief that atheists don't hold," i.e. religious belief isn't substantively or essentially different, it's just superficially different.

Christina seems to rely on some bullshit postmodernist notion of universal humanism:
But the fact that religious believers hold one irrational belief that atheists don't hold doesn't make them fundamentally less-rational human beings than us. And we shouldn't pretend that it does.
We're all human beings, right? Who's in a privileged position to judge?

Well, this is bullshit. Universal humanism does not entail that we shouldn't judge each other. It entails only that we are all equally privileged to judge, and we are subject or not subject to others' judgment all in the same way. Universal humanism is not the idea that there should be no laws, it's that all are equal before the law. The idea that one should be "perfect" to make moral judgments is a Christian idea. This idea doesn't argue against judgment per se, it argues only that God alone is privileged to judge... via His self-appointed Earthly representatives, of course.

Christina's position here is hopelessly confused. Taken to its logical conclusion (and Christian presuppositional metaphysics does indeed take this argument to its extreme) one could justly conclude that rationality itself was just another arbitrary belief. To be fair, Christina explicit disclaims such an interpretation, but a disclaimer of the logical conclusion of an argument is itself irrational.

I must admit, I don't have much empathy for people who struggle with irrational beliefs. I've of course had mistaken beliefs and I've had lazily constructed beliefs, but I've never had an irrational belief. Not one. I've modified or rejected every belief I've ever had for which I've been presented with sufficient contrary evidence. I've never felt the slightest bit of angst or discomfort in conforming my beliefs to the evidence available. And I've met a lot of people just like me.

37 comments:

  1. The "angry atheist" and "she goes off the rails" links are broken and lead to the "create a post" page.

    Interestingly enough, Greta's site is blocked by my work's firewall on the grounds of "pornography."

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  2. D'oh! Thanks, James; I've fixed the links.

    Her site does have sexually explicit language and pictures, so the blockage is not entirely disconnected with fact.

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  3. bb--

    i've been wrestling with chemistry students this week over the differences between indocrination, training, and education in the lab and the classroom. 'indoctrination' is how we begin a new subject-- we present presuppositions as truths. (for example in beginning chemistry, the periodic table is presented to students as a done deal). 'training' is how we acquire experiences and skills that allow us to manipulate hypotheses and theories. 'education' is about critical thinking.

    at its very 'finest and funnest,' critical thinking is about challenging the presuppositions, especially the presuppositions that are imprecise approximations of reality. so while we indoctrinate with presuppositions at the beginning, we encourage the challenging of each and every one of these presuppositions at some point.

    this is the difference between science and theology methodologies. theology does not encourage, or even allow, the challenging of presuppositions.

    faith is about accepting these presuppositions as 'truth' without challenge. and while it's possible to have faith in scientific presuppositions (being unwilling to challenge them, and accepting them as 'true,' as most of my students do at this point in their exposure), i know i've done my job really, really well as an educator, when they challenge me on every single one of my presuppositions.

    i want all of my students to move from 'faith' in science to something else-- healthy skepticism rooted in critical thinking. and it is my greatest joy to give them the tools, and ask them the questions, and to watch them make the move. this is conversion at its best.

    peace--

    scott

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  4. Well, I'm sorry to have lost your respect, and you're certainly entitled to your opinion of me. But I think much of what you write here is either inaccurate, unjust, or both, and I'm going to try to clarify.

    1. The sex post. Yes, I sometimes make broad generalizations based on my personal experience and observations. I'm human, and that's one of the things human minds do. In my writing, I try to make it clear that my generalizations are generalizations, that they don't necessarily apply to everyone, and that "my personal experience and observation" may not be a representative sampling of the population as a whole. But I also try to do it in a way that doesn't make my casual blog writing read like a clunky, unreadable sociology paper. In this case, I thought that following my generalizations with the brief parenthetical remark, "(It did for me, anyway.)" got that across. If that wasn't clear in this case, you have my apologies.

    As to the discussion of faith and irrationality:

    First of all, I'm not the one who came up with the use of the word "faith" to denote both secular confidence/ trust and religious belief. The word "faith" is extremely old, and has been used with both secular and religious meanings for centuries. In fact, if the online etymology dictionary etymonline.com can be trusted, the secular meaning is somewhat older than the religious one (c. 1250, with the Old French and Latin root going back much further, and the religious meaning dating back only to 1300).

    And in fact, the entire point of my post on the difference between secular and religious faith was to point out that, while the word is the same, the secular and religious meanings of it are significantly different. One of the most common tropes in theistic arguments against atheism is, "You have faith, too, so how is that different from my faith?" The entire frakking point of my post was to say, "Here's how it's different."

    I'm sorry if you don't like the lack of clarity in the language. But that's how language works sometimes. Don't get mad at me about it. I'm trying to clear it up. If you want to go on a campaign to stop the secular use of the word "faith," knock yourself out. However, my understanding of how language works tells me that such a campaign is unlikely to succeed; so instead I choose to accept that this is one word with two meanings, and to do what I can to make the distinction clear.

    As to my second post on faith:

    I'm reading over your diatribe, and I think you may have missed the key point. My point, in a nutshell, is this: Yes, religious belief is irrational. Profoundly so. I spent the entire first post in this series making that exact argument. But that doesn't mean that religious believers are fundamentally irrational people. Here's the key paragraph:

    "It is entirely possible to have certain irrational beliefs -- even significant beliefs, even stubbornly held ones -- and still be a basically rational person in most other areas of our lives. It's not just possible. It's universal. We all do it. In fact, hanging on to mistaken ideas once we've committed to them seems to be a basic part of how our minds work. And despite that, we're still generally rational people, able to process information and analyze it effectively and make appropriate decisions about how to act on it... most of the time."

    That was the point of this piece. (One of them, anyway.) Religious believers make up roughly 90% of the world's population. And most of them are more or less rational people in most areas of their lives. I'm not arguing that the belief isn't irrational -- I think it is. I'm arguing that one (or even more than one) irrational belief does not automatically make for a fundamentally irrational person.

    Here's the thing. I try very hard in my "criticism of religion" writing to draw a distinction between religious beliefs and religious believers, and to be hostile to the beliefs and actions while still maintaining a basic human understanding and empathy for the people. I have known too many religious believers in my life who are good, smart, kind, reasonable people to do otherwise.

    I am not advocating appeasement. I am advocating the understanding that religious believers are human beings, whose errors and misdeeds are human ones. I will certainly continue to speak out vehemently against the errors and misdeeds of religion. But I decline to treat every single religious believer as if they were alien, evil, stupid, crazy, or the enemy.

    Finally, with all due respect: If you really think that you apply rational thinking to all your beliefs and that you have never had an irrational belief, then I respectfully request permission to point and laugh. I strongly encourage you to read "MIstakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts." The unconscious and profoundly irrational process by which people justify -- and hang on to -- false beliefs is a fundamental way that the human mind works, and none of us is exempt from it. And one of the basics of rationalization and justification is that it is incredibly easy to see in other people and incredibly difficult to see in ourselves.

    You may think that my attempts to be honest with myself about my own fallible humanity are "hyper-self-critical" and "neurotic." But if you really believe that you are exempt from human irrationality, then I respectfully suggest that perhaps you are not self-critical enough.

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  5. The entire frakking point of my post was to say, "Here's how it's different."

    Hi Greta. While I appreciate your attempt at disambiguating the term "faith", I think it is ultimately misguided. There's no way you can avoid the bait-and-switch equivocation arguments that go with it. "Faith" triggers too many connections in the brain for people to reliably behave sensibly about it.

    You might think the alternative is even less workable ("No, actually I don't have faith. In anything."), but I would have to disagree. In my limited experience, spelling "secular-faith" as "empirical confidence/trust" makes the distinction clear, or at least forces the listener to hear that there is a distinction.

    Saying "my faith is different to your faith", even if you argue it well (as I think you have) can't prevent the mental connections people will form on hearing "faith".

    In fact, this ties in with what you already know about how "irrational" people are in the large. While there may be exceptions, on the whole "faith" is too ingrained a concept to be overridden by well-chosen words. You've got to sidestep that issue entirely, but making the disconnect explicit.

    Owen

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  6. But the fact that religious believers hold one irrational belief that atheists don't hold doesn't make them fundamentally less-rational human beings than us. And we shouldn't pretend that it does.

    Hey there Larry.

    Isn't this quote an alternative formulation of your excellent "atheists are just people with one less stupid idea"?

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  7. Greta Christina:

    First of all, if you strongly object to my use of "hyper-self-critical", I must say that this is a specific characterization (although perhaps in not those precise words) you have applied to yourself. If you wish me to substantiate this assertion, I'll be happy to find the citation. If I'm mistaken in my characterization, I'll admit my mistake and apologize.

    But I think this is the least of our disagreements.

    It's not a justification to say, "That's something that humans do." Rape murder and theft are things that humans do, but that doesn't justify them.

    You're still missing the point about generalizations. The generalization in the sex post is not very unclear (which I mention in the comment), it's that the unjustified generalizations insert a note of falsity.

    Being sloppy about generalizations a bad habit that promotes slopping thinking. The broad generalization in the sex post is not itself very objectionable in the sex post, but the sloppy generalization in the everyone's irrational post is egregiously bad.

    I understand that the broad meaning of "faith" can and has been used to denote secular confidence and trust. If you actually read my argument carefully, you will note that I explicitly grant that point. It's uncontroversial that faith is at least the almost right word. I grant as you adequately differentiate the underlying ideas; You'll note that I call your essay "excellent".

    But, as Owen notes, it's not the right word; it's just not sufficient to establish an underlying difference, even if you do so rigorously and thoroughly (which you do). Using the same word for two substantively different meanings invites equivocation. You prove my point when you yourself give full rein to equivocal thinking in your last essay.

    I completely understand the point of your last essay:

    Yes, religious belief is irrational. Profoundly so. I spent the entire first post in this series making that exact argument. But that doesn't mean that religious believers are fundamentally irrational people.

    The whole point of my post is that I think you're wrong, and that you employ fallacious arguments.

    It's one thing to assert that most religious people employ rational thought in much of their lives. I concur, and it's an important justification of rationality that it really is employed by everyone in at least a limited sense. Promoting rationality does not entail asking anyone to accept an entirely novel mode of reasoning.

    It's the opposite point that I disagree with: Not that everyone at least sometimes employs rationality, but that everyone (or nearly everyone) at least sometimes employs irrationality. It's not true, and if it were true, it would completely undermine the skeptical critique of religion.

    Irrationality is definitely pervasive, and not just in the religious. As Owen almost correctly notes, some atheists are just people with one fewer stupid idea.

    But irrationality is not universal. There is a small but growing minority of people who are rational about everything. Being entirely rational does not preclude having opinions and preference, it allows for mistakes and errors. It is simply the commitment that if I'm going to call some statement true, I do so because I'm convinced of its truth by reason and the evidence I have available.

    There's nothing wrong with being conciliatory towards the religious. I myself do not share that preference, but I'm on the record as having no political or rational objection to those who do prefer conciliation.

    The appeasement comes in, though, when you promote a fallacious argument that rationally justifies religious irrationality. If everyone is irrational, if irrationality is unavoidable, then why object to specifically religious irrationality? You're framing the discussion to be about chocolate vs. vanilla.

    I completely agree that religious people are human beings, and deserve the same respect and universal rights that are due every human being without exception by virtue of his or her humanity. But one of those universal human rights is the right to judge, to make rationally supportable distinctions, and to express moral judgment about those distinctions.

    But if you really believe that you are exempt from human irrationality, then I respectfully suggest that perhaps you are not self-critical enough.

    This is a belief that you appear hold that cannot be changed by any evidence. Anyone who seems entirely rational is just being insufficiently self-critical. No amount of evidence can contradict the certainty that some hidden fact confirms the proposition.

    I have a considerable body of work which I subject to public criticism, which should provide an evidentiary basis for your assertion. I definitely do not exempt myself from mistake and error, but yes, I do exempt myself from irrationality. If anyone presents evidence that I have indeed made a mistake, I will honestly evaluate that evidence, and reevaluate my position in light of that evidence. That's what rationality is all about.

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  8. "I definitely do not exempt myself from mistake and error, but yes, I do exempt myself from irrationality. If anyone presents evidence that I have indeed made a mistake, I will honestly evaluate that evidence, and reevaluate my position in light of that evidence."

    But the point is, until you have seen the evidence that you have made a mistake, you are being irrational without realizing that you have been irrational. While you may police yourself for it far more closely than most do, and correct it when you discover it, it does not mean you are never irrational. Saying you are never irrational is like saying you are never hungry. You are not exempt from it. It happens with everyone. That was Greta's point.

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  9. Adam - one can be entirely rational and still make a mistake. It is possible for two rational people to rationally come to two different conclusions on an issue. Rational does not mean infallible. In fact, it is possible that the only possible conclusion is the wrong one when approached rationally with limited information. Being wrong doesn't make you irrational. Rationality is about methodology, not conclusions.

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  10. Adam G.: While you may police yourself for [error] far more closely than most do, and correct it when you discover it, it does not mean you are never irrational... Saying you are never irrational is like saying you are never hungry. You are not exempt from it. It happens with everyone. That was Greta's point.

    I understand what Christina's point was. She's actually somewhat ambiguous, so your mistake is understandable, but read the crucial sentence again: "We've all held irrational beliefs, and held on to them irrationally for longer than we should have."

    The first clause is equivocal; it's really not clear if she means by "We've all held irrational beliefs," whether she really means mistaken beliefs or beliefs constructed without any appeal to evidence or argument. But the second clause — we've all "held on to them irrationally for longer than we should have," makes it clear that she's talking about more than simple error.

    Saying you are never irrational is like saying you are never hungry.

    Sure, if you define "irrational" to be synonymous with "mistaken". I reject that definition as specious and vacuous. To extend your metaphor, you could just as well argue that vegans and carnivores have the same morality about food because they both eat.

    There's just nothing to be gained by defining pejorative characterizations such as "irrational" (or "racist" or "sexist") so far down that avoiding the characterization is logically or physically impossible. Indeed, you do actual harm, because by defining the pejorative that far down you implicitly endorse its presence. If "irrationality" is essentially and ineluctably human, any criticism because a criticism of the wrong flavor of irrationality.

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  11. All right, fair enough. So let's look at this a different way.

    Saying "I am NEVER [fitb]" is only possible when you are talking about some truly unchangeable characteristic: "I am never African-American," or "I am never a person with an XX chromosomal setup," for example. Those are statements of fact. Statements of behavior and belief, however, are not so cut-and-dried or black-and-white.

    You may believe you are never irrational. You certainly seem to aspire to it. But I guarantee you that there is at least one aspect of your life, somewhere, where you are irrational. It may be something as simple as refusing to drink milk that is a day past its sell-by date. But it's there.

    How do I know this? Because you're making an absolute statement, and absolute statements are logically false on their face. The only time they work is when they can be demonstrated through other means. Simply saying "I am never irrational" is not good enough. That only demonstrates your belief that you are never irrational, which is not the same thing as never being irrational.

    You say "rationality is about methodology, not conclusions," but that's not the kind of rationality Greta was talking about. Greta was talking about irrationality of motivation, not methodology. Everyone is occasionally irrationally motivated, even if they adhere completely to a rational method. I think you have misunderstood what she said.

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  12. Saying "I am NEVER [fitb]" is only possible when you are talking about some truly unchangeable characteristic

    Bullshit. By that standard, you can't say you've never murdered anyone.

    But I guarantee you that there is at least one aspect of your life, somewhere, where you are irrational.

    If you have irrational faith in that belief, obviously no argument I can make or evidence I can proffer will dissuade you from it.

    It may be something as simple as refusing to drink milk that is a day past its sell-by date.

    That is not an example of irrational behavior. It would be irrational only to assert as a matter of truth that milk one day past its sell date is definitely unhealthy.

    Greta was talking about irrationality of motivation, not methodology.

    No, you read Greta as talking about irrationality of motivation. Perhaps that reading is justified, but that would make her argument even more moronic than it I've argued it to be. Rationality and irrationality apply only to truth claims. Motivation is not truth-apt in the first place; the categories of rationality and irrationality do not apply. An "irrational motivation" is a just as much a non sequitur as a blue or purple motivation.

    There are legitimate ways of disagreeing about opinions, desires, motivations and preferences, but rational truth-seeking about the opinions themselves is not one of those ways.

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  13. Sorry... "By that standard, you can't say you've never murdered anyone," would be more precise as, "By that standard, you cannot say you're not a murderer."

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  14. "But the point is, until you have seen the evidence that you have made a mistake, you are being irrational without realizing that you have been irrational."

    I think there's a cavernous distinction between "mistaken" and "irrational." Irrational beliefs are, by their nature, impervious to skepticism and self-reflection.

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  15. BB, would you classify bearing a grudge against a person or organization, or falling in love with the (obviously to everyone else) "wrong person", as behaviors based on irrational beliefs, rather than simply mistaken reasoning? Emotion, more than rational thought, perhaps much more, being the basis for such beliefs.

    Does it matter how long one is mistaken about a belief (momentary, angry over-reaction to something vs. bearing a grudge for years)? All human beings have engaged in irrational behavior at some time in their lives (eg. been afraid of the dark as a child, been unfairly prejudiced about a person as an adult or against trying a new vegetable as a child), and I'm thinking such irrational behaviors are based on irrational beliefs. Don't all adults, even the most rational, experience irrational reactions to some stimulus, however fleeting. I'm not saying this is what GC was blogging about, just trying to figure out the difference between irrational beliefs and mistaken reasoning on, perhaps, a more nuanced level.

    James said:
    "I think there's a cavernous distinction between "mistaken" and "irrational." Irrational beliefs are, by their nature, impervious to skepticism and self-reflection."

    Is there a time limit on that distinction? How long does someone have to be "impervious to skepticism and self-reflection" before you would move them from the mistaken to the irrational category?

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  16. Steelman: [W]ould you classify bearing a grudge against a person or organization, or falling in love with the (obviously to everyone else) "wrong person", as behaviors based on irrational beliefs, rather than simply mistaken reasoning? Emotion, more than rational thought, perhaps much more, being the basis for such beliefs.

    It's very difficult to say without specific details. If an action is based on specifically wanting to do something (i.e. an emotion), then rationality doesn't enter into it in the first place; people want what they want, and, all things considered, they do what they want.

    In an important and nontrivial sense, there's no "rational" justification for wanting getting out of bed in the morning.

    It's irrational in one sense only to have 1) a false belief about the world in the face of clear evidence to the contrary or b) assign truth or falsity to a non-truth-apt proposition in the face of a good argument against its truth-aptness.

    Again, while the informal use of "irrational" to mean "emotional" is not lexicographically forbidden, the two are sense are sufficiently different that they cannot be casually equivocated.

    How long does someone have to be "impervious to skepticism and self-reflection" before you would move them from the mistaken to the irrational category?

    You haven't debated much with theists, have you? ;-) There comes a time when it becomes simpler and more charitable to conclude a person is irrational than the alternative of believing they have had an actual lobotomy.

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  17. But irrationality is not universal. There is a small but growing minority of people who are rational about everything. Being entirely rational does not preclude having opinions and preference, it allows for mistakes and errors. It is simply the commitment that if I'm going to call some statement true, I do so because I'm convinced of its truth by reason and the evidence I have available.

    This claim is obviously and dangerously false.

    1. Every last one of us bases his or her life, beliefs and values on unevidenced assumptions not rationally based (for example, that "all persons are created equal").

    2. Up until around 30 years ago the study of economics was fundamentally based upon the idea that people acted in accordance with their own rational self-interests. That view has been utterly shredded by the evidence, beginning with a 1976 Science article by Tversky and Kahneman arguing that rules of thumb (mental shortcuts) lead to systematic errors and biases. As the research has clearly (and often painfully) shown, people are inherently irrational creatures highly susceptible to predictable biases and errors held despite contrary evidence. If you doubt it, there's a wide body of literature making the case. You might start with Thaler and Sunstein's new book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press).

    3. Religious belief, while often irrational, isn't necessarily so. Some people simply haven't come across contrary evidence or they may weigh the evidence differently than you do.

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  18. Sinbad said,

    1. Every last one of us bases his or her life, beliefs and values on unevidenced assumptions not rationally based (for example, that "all persons are created equal").

    A statement like that is normative rather than literal. For a theist who does take it as literal, it does become irrational. As a slogan, I certainly approve of its non-literal meaning.

    I am not sure what assumptions you mean here. Even the most basic facts we know about the world are amendable.

    3. Religious belief, while often irrational, isn't necessarily so. Some people simply haven't come across contrary evidence or they may weigh the evidence differently than you do.

    There is absolutely no positive evidence that god exists much less that he ever encroaches on this reality through miracles or prayers. It is incoherent to ask for negative evidence that god doesn't exist.

    So how can it be not irrational to believe in propositions about god when there is absolutely no evidence to suggest his existence?

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  19. I am hereby declining to continue this argument.

    Barefoot Bum has either misunderstood or misrepresented almost everything I've said on this topic -- at times even asserting that my point was the exact opposite of what it really was. And I don't have either the time or inclination to explain, for the third time, what I meant. If anyone else wants to discuss these ideas with me in my blog, they're welcome to do so. I am not going to do so here.

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  20. Sinbad: Chris's response to 1) and 3) are adequate, and I have nothing substantive to add.

    Let me address (2): The definition of "rational" in game theory (which underlies the study of economics) is specialized; its precise relationship to rationality in the philosophical sense is not yet fully understood.

    Again, we have a kind of equivocation fallacy. The kinds of "irrationality" noted in game theory are instances of sub-optimal unconscious low- and middle-level cognitive processes. In this sense, they differ substantively from the kind of irrationality displayed by religious people, and the kind of rationality I'm talking about, which are high-level conscious processes.

    Indeed it is only because we can and do think rationally at the high level that we can discover the sub-optimality of some of our low-level cognitive processes.

    Furthermore, these supposedly "irrational" cognitive processes are usually efficient neurological and information-processing heuristics tuned to the specific circumstances of our evolutionary history. It's not irrational to apply a heuristic as a first approximation to solving a particular problem in real time, even if you know the heuristic is not reliable in all circumstances.

    A consciously rational person can discover many of these biases relatively easily, and correct all of them when they are adequately evidenced.

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  21. Greta Christina: I am hereby declining to continue this argument.

    You'll pardon me, I hope, if I'm not terribly surprised.

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  22. Just for the record, I read Greta Christina's post and, independently of the Barefoot Bum, came up with almost exactly the same criticisms of her thinking. She started out well enough but by the time she got to her last sentence, she had ceased to make sense.

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  23. I am not sure what assumptions you mean here.

    Then I'll illustrate. Most people's political views value both freedom and equality. But there is inherent conflict between those values -- to enforce equality one must limit freedom. How one's political (and economic) worldview weighs and balances these competing values is not and cannot be based upon a weighing of evidence, but it is hardly irrational.

    There is absolutely no positive evidence that god exists....

    That claim is a silly rhetorical ploy (much like the similarly ridiculous old saw that faith is belief without evidence -- a definition one can search the OED for in vain, of course) and is necessarily predicated upon an ignorance of what evidence is and a conflation of evidence and the inferences one draws from and the conclusions one makes about the evidence. One may reasonably analyze the nature and quality of the evidence for God and conclude He doesn't exist. But one may not reasonably argue that there isn't any evidence. To pick an easy example, by any evidenciary standard, a person's testimony of experiencing God is evidence. You and I may think it's weak or poor evidence, but it's evidence nonetheless.

    So how can it be not irrational to believe in propositions about god when there is absolutely no evidence to suggest his existence?

    Even were I to agree that no such evidence exists, your claim would not be established. For example, had my parents taught me as a child that some claim or viewpoint (religious or otherwise) was true and had I accepted it, I'm not necessarily irrational for continuing to hold it, even if someone questions my view and purports to offer conflicting evidence (there being no ethical obligation to examine every contrary claim one hears). Moreover, I don't rationally choose my beliefs (I can't simply decide to believe that there's an invisible elephant in the room).

    Indeed it is only because we can and do think rationally at the high level that we can discover the sub-optimality of some of our low-level cognitive processes.

    Except that our attempted high-level analysis of evidence is skewed by inherent irrationalities and we simply don't know what we don't know. It's why Greta rightly called bullsh*t.

    Furthermore, these supposedly "irrational" cognitive processes are usually efficient neurological and information-processing heuristics tuned to the specific circumstances of our evolutionary history.

    That they are advantagious doesn't make them rational.

    It's not irrational to apply a heuristic as a first approximation to solving a particular problem in real time, even if you know the heuristic is not reliable in all circumstances.

    It's not irrational for a theist to keep believing so long as it is perceived as "working."

    A consciously rational person can discover many of these biases relatively easily, and correct all of them when they are adequately evidenced.

    Sad to say, I think you're serious.

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  24. Sinbad:

    How one's political (and economic) worldview weighs and balances these competing values is not and cannot be based upon a weighing of evidence, but it is hardly irrational.

    As I've argued and written about at considerable length, opinions and preferences do not have truth-apt content. They are neither "rational" nor "irrational" (since both apply to truth-apt content); they are facts.

    ...the similarly ridiculous old saw that faith is belief without evidence -- a definition one can search the OED for in vain, of course

    I recommend you actually check the dictionary before you embarrass yourself again.

    To pick an easy example, by any evidenciary standard, a person's testimony of experiencing God is evidence.

    You're technically correct, and Chris overstates the case. It is more correct to say that the conclusion that no God exists (assuming a falsifiable definition of "God") is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence. So overwhelmingly that only willful ignorance can preserve any evidentiary justification for religious belief.

    ...there being no ethical obligation to examine every contrary claim one hears...

    This statement is disingenuous. There is an ethical obligation to carefully examine the evidence for a view one actively promulgates.

    Moreover, I don't rationally choose my beliefs (I can't simply decide to believe that there's an invisible elephant in the room).

    I'm not a fan of this framing of belief-formation processes; its justification gets deeply tangled in ambiguous and unfalsifiable notions of free will.

    Except that our attempted high-level analysis of evidence is skewed by inherent irrationalities and we simply don't know what we don't know.

    You're verging close on self-refutation. If such were the case, the categories "rational" and "irrational" would cease to have meaning. You might as well go the whole hog and get a graduate degree in postmodernist lit-crit.

    That they are advantagious doesn't make them rational.

    Um... It is rational to employ an advantageous heuristic when you can tell at least post hoc that the heuristic is inapplicable.

    It's not irrational for a theist to keep believing so long as it is perceived as "working."

    Generally speaking, sophisticated philosophers try to keep from openly contradicting themselves in successive paragraphs.

    Sad to say, I think you're serious.

    Of course I'm serious.

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  25. The thrust of your argument, Sinbad, is that both "religion is irrational", and "skepticism is rational" are both false universals. I think you're technically correct, but I think evidence and analysis positively justifies the corresponding strong generalizations.

    Generalizations are both useful and dangerous; I'm composing a post on that very topic.

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  26. Sorry... let me be a bit more modest: "The thrust of your argument, Sinbad, seems to be that both..."

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  27. As I've argued and written about at considerable length, opinions and preferences do not have truth-apt content. They are neither "rational" or "irrational" (since both apply to truth-apt content); they are facts.

    I see. Our opinions are necessarily "accidental, subjective, and self-perpetuating" while our analysis of the supporting evidence can be entirely dispassionate and rational. Riiight.

    I recommend you actually check the dictionary before you embarrass yourself again.

    Physician, heal thyself.

    As advertised, the OED in fact contains nothing like your proposed definition and even your link merely offers a secondary definition of "belief that is not based on proof." I don't claim that God is proven, merely that there is evidence in support of the idea. The embarrassment is all yours.

    It is more correct to say that the conclusion that no God exists (assuming a falsifiable definition of "God") is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence.

    Then it is necessarily false (and intentionally misleading) to claim that faith is belief without evidence.

    So overwhelmingly that only willful ignorance can preserve any evidentiary justification for religious belief.

    That assumes that reasonable people can only evaluate the evidence one way and that they have some necessary obligation to evaluate alleged conflicting evidence, neither of which can be substantiated.

    There is an ethical obligation to carefully examine the evidence for a view one actively promulgates.

    Nonsense. For example, I actively promulgate evolutionary theory because I think it's true. I have read a good deal of literature on the subject and I find it convincing (despite my glaring lack of expertise). But I haven't done any real research and have engaged in no testing whatsoever. The key to my opinion isn't the evidence (which I haven't looked at and which I am entirely unqualified to evaluate properly anyway), but the status of the people actually doing the work. I trust them and their judgments. I needn't go back to Duke and get a biology degree before I can actively assert that evolution is true.

    ...its justification gets deeply tangled in ambiguous and unfalsifiable notions of free will.

    You emphasize this point because naturalism precludes volition (cause and effect being relentless).

    If such were the case, the categories "rational" and "irrational" would cease to have meaning.

    No, it simply means that we're far too eager to assert irrationality when we're really talking about garden-variety error.

    Um... It is rational to employ an advantageous heuristic when you can tell at least post hoc that the heuristic is inapplicable.

    You're equivocating. We were using "rational" in the sense of being evidence-based, not in the sense of being sensible or useful.

    Generally speaking, sophisticated philosophers try to keep from openly contradicting themselves in successive paragraphs.

    Although I'm no "sophisticated philosopher," that's why I didn't. Rational and not irrational are not necessarily identical. It isn't rational in the usual case to employ a rule of thumb, but it's not irrational.

    The thrust of your argument, Sinbad, [seems to be] that both "religion is irrational", and "skepticism is rational" are both false universals.

    Sort of. The real thrust is that the idea that anyone is somehow always rational is laughably ridiculous, arrogant bullsh*t.

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  28. Sinbad: You fail to make any actual arguments in your latest comment.

    Our opinions are necessarily "accidental, subjective, and self-perpetuating" while our analysis of the supporting evidence can be entirely dispassionate and rational. Riiight.

    Is there an argument there?

    (And without citation, you appear to be quoting from this thread, which is prima facie dishonest.)

    As advertised, the OED in fact contains nothing like your proposed definition...

    This objection is so trivial that even characterizing it as "nit-picking" affords it far too much significance.

    That assumes that reasonable people can only evaluate the evidence one way and that they have some necessary obligation to evaluate alleged conflicting evidence, neither of which can be substantiated.

    Is there an argument in there? I can conclude that you probably do not believe that the evidence against the existence of God is overwhelming, but I'm not convinced of the analytical assertion you make.

    I have read a good deal of literature on the subject [of evolution] and I find it convincing...

    Then you have examined the evidence with a care appropriate to the relevant context. What's your objection here? I'm hard pressed to find a second snarky comment about nit-picking.

    You emphasize this point because naturalism precludes volition.

    No it doesn't.

    You're equivocating.

    No, I was responding to your original equivocation. If I have to address multiple points from one comment, then you need to be able to restore the point-specific context when reading my replies.

    Rational and not irrational are not necessarily identical.

    If it makes you feel any better, under this sort of construction, it would be more precise to say that I am not irrational.

    [T]he idea that anyone is somehow always rational is laughably ridiculous, arrogant bullsh*t.

    You can spell out "bullshit" here.

    You're certainly entitled to your opinion. However, the comments section is not a platform for you to express your opinion. If you have an actual argument, I'll be happy to evaluate it.

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  29. Is there an argument there?

    Yes -- implicit in my snarkiness, but obvious nonetheless.

    (And without citation, you appear to be quoting from this thread, which is prima facie dishonest.)

    Since I was quoting you from the link you provided within the quote being discussed, I thought an express citation was unnecessary. If you think that's somehow dishonest, I don't really know what to say beyond I'm sorry for your confusion (both generally and specifically, of course).

    This objection is so trivial that even characterizing it as "nit-picking" affords it far too much significance.

    Nonsense (since the OED is the, eh-hem, Bible of dictionarires). But more importantly, your own linked definition doesn't support your claim and is entirely consistent with mine.

    Then you have examined the evidence with a care appropriate to the relevant context.

    I haven't examined evidence at all. I've merely read books describing evidence. By your proposed standard I'm under some obligation to do much more than that.

    You're certainly entitled to your opinion.

    And you yours.

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  30. Larry: Is there an argument there?

    Sinbad: Yes -- implicit in my snarkiness, but obvious nonetheless.

    Er, not that obvious. I didn't get it.

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  31. There's just no getting around it: Philosophy is a "show your work" type of discipline.

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  32. Well, having read this rather hysterical distortion of Greta's clear intentions and the subsequent repsonses I can categorically say, as an entirely unbiased observer that you, Barefoot Bum, are missing and misrepresenting so many of Greta's points you ought to be embarrassed. I'm not in the least surprised she declined to bicker with you. Life's too short to deal with people who insist on grinding personal axes rather than actually paying attention.

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  33. Jack: Your opinion is noted. I already know, however, that some people disagree with me, and I know I can't please everyone. Absent any specifics, your opinion gives me no new information.

    Also, this conflict is more than 18 months old: ancient history in internet time. Get over it.

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  34. I'm an Atheist who doesn't hate relgion. Tonite, my username & email are no longer able to be activated at her blog. Is this an attempt to remove Trolls (which they think I am on her blog). If so, is it also a way to prevent contrarian thought from appearing on a site she controls

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  35. Wow. Classic delusional overestimation. You know not what you think you know.

    No one has the time or the mental facility to consider *all* beliefs through a rational prism. There is too much data and too many complexities in the universe.

    We are all born with instincts, and it has been shown over and over again that (at least most) people have not just irrational instincts, but predictably irrational ones. Sorry you're tired of people marginalizing you by telling you incontrovertible facts of existence, but too freaking bad. Grow up.

    I know there is a bunch of stupid stuff on the internet, but this was the most willfully ignorant post I've seen in a *long* time, no matter how old it is.

    You strike me as a very unhappy, very unsociable, very delusional human being. I'm sorry for you.

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  36. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  37. I hate that this half wit has garnered so much attention on our behalf. She is like a secret weapon planted here by the religious establishment to ward off any fence sitters wanting to come over to the secular side.

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